Vermont standoff over Belgian sheep and food safety

In a gently rolling field in the heart of the Mad River Valley, several dozen sheep graze peacefully under the watchful eye of a llama.

On closer examination, their snouts appear to be longer and their ears are floppier than the average American sheep.

They're East Friesians, a special breed of unusually productive dairy sheep imported three years ago to fortify America's nascent sheep-dairy industry.

But ask Linda Faillace what she thinks now when she looks at her flock, and she says, "Fear."

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), after authorizing the importation of the East Friesians, has now decided they should be destroyed or sent back to Belgium.

The reason: The admittedly remote possibility that the sheep may have been exposed to feed that may have been contaminated with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) - so-called "mad cow" disease.

For the Faillaces, it's a tale of bureaucratic overkill, based not on rational science, but on various theories and political panic.

But for Linda Detwiler of the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services, it's a case of protecting the public from even the remotest possibility of introducing to this country what scientist call a debilitating disease.

"We are being very, very cautious," she says. "If we let [the sheep] go and something did happen down the line ... how could we answer for it?"

At stake for the Faillaces, however, is their family future, the six years of work they've already put into researching, importing, and building their small sheep dairy, and their dreams of reviving the sheep-dairy industry in the US.

"It's like having the first Holstein cows," says Thomas Amidon, an attorney for the Skunk Hollow farm in Greensboro, Vt., which owns the other flock of disputed East Friesians.

The USDA insists its caution with the animals is more than justified. An outbreak of BSE in British cattle caused an international ban on British beef and cost the country's cattle industry billions of dollars.

The Faillaces were living in Europe at the time the controversy erupted onto headlines. Larry Faillace was earning his doctorate in animal sciences and worked for a time for one of Britain's leading BSE experts.

As a result, they say they were extremely cautious when they decided which sheep to import to the United States, choosing flocks that could be documented as BSE-free.

When the USDA called last year, the Faillaces not only presented all of their documentation, they also flew several sheep and BSE experts over from Europe to make their case.

The USDA was unmoved. Ms. Detwiler pointed to a laboratory study done in Britain that had found that BSE in cows could spread to sheep.

Contending that some cows documented as BSE-free had come down with the disease, she also discounted the Faillaces' position.

Right now, the standoff continues. Because the sheep aren't sick, the USDA by law can't force the Faillaces to give them up. So the Faillaces are continuing to stand firm.

"The USDA is in a position where they have to raise enough suspicion that they can justify getting rid of the sheep, it's a very bizarre situation," says Ms. Faillace.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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